I received Ultima Online unexpectedly as a Christmas present in 1998. My brother recommended it to my parents as something that he thought I would like.
He didn’t know what he was getting me into.
Ultima Online was one of the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games, taking the lore and settings of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series and adapting it to massive online play. At the time, I was a regular online player of Diablo, Quake, and Starcraft. Competitively speaking, I wasn’t very good at any of them, and our not-great-even-for-a-rural-area internet connection further handicapped my play. Nevertheless, online gaming was a new and exciting experience, and I was having a blast playing over the internet with friends and strangers alike, even the ones whose usernames were just mashups of profanities and pot references. Well, except when I would get killed by cheaters in Diablo. That wasn’t fun, but there was only so much you could do about that. It was the frontier days of online gaming, with no checks in place to fight the outlaws, and minimal punishment for those who did not play by the rules.
Ultima Online was a deep dive into an even more robust, immersive online gaming experience: a persistent online world with its own evolving culture and economy. It was exciting, if not a little intimidating, to step into a game world that never stopped, even when you logged out. Adventures were had, business transactions made, towns were overrun by skeletons, and so on, all while your character slept peacefully in the inn as you lived your real life, logged out of the game. Instead of being the core figure in a grand, world-sweeping adventure, I was but one of thousands of players, all inhabiting the same world at the same time, all with their own goals, schedules, skillsets, and more. It was a completely different dynamic from any other RPG I had played.
I spent my first couple of months test-driving the game, trying different skill combinations and exploring the world on different servers, learning the system with no real long-term goals or remote idea of what I was doing. The most jarring aspect of learning how to play UO was discovering how hardcore the game was and how careful you had to be in the wilderness. Safe zones were few and far between, and the punishment for death was severe. You didn’t just lose a pittance of gold when you died. In an instant, whether killed by a monster or another player, you ran the risk of losing everything on your person. More often than not, it was to another player. They often didn’t just kill you, either—they gutted you, looted your body of everything of value, and cut up your corpse and used your body parts to decorate their home. I was amazed and frightened by just how awful some of the other players were. I got killed by other players, robbed by other players, duped by other players, and suffered numerous other forms of abuse. It was infuriating to the point of tears on a number of occasions, but ultimately helpful in the long run, as I learned by experience where player killers (PKs) liked to hang out. I also learned how to avoid robbery and harassment, and otherwise not draw attention to myself.
It was a tough beginning, but I was quickly hardened by the game’s brutal (but fair) rules. Living in such constant danger became more of a thrill than anything else. I learned to be prepared to lose everything at any given moment and how to avoid or quickly recover from such incidents. I knew the world. I knew how to shop, make money, forge alliances of convenience, get from one place to another, and stay out of trouble. I was ready to begin.
I created a new character on the Atlantic shard (server), a mace-and-shield fighter with limited magic ability. I lived in a town called Moonglow. I chopped trees and took up bowcrafting to make money on the side. I fought small animals to build my strength, magic, and fighting skills. In time, I started fighting bigger animals, as well as the skeletons and zombies at the graveyard to hone my growing combat abilities. Also in time, the player killer population around the graveyard got to be too numerous and too dangerous, so I found a new home in the forest city of Yew. There, I casually observed officials and militia officers from the City of Yew, a player guild that took on the responsibility of governing the city and protecting the population. They seemed like good, helpful people, so I enlisted in their militia.
All of a sudden, I found myself hip deep in Atlantic’s robust role-playing community. The City of Yew was but one of many roleplaying guilds across the server, all sharing a loose alliance. Some were orders of knights sworn to protect and uphold the law, some were other city governments, some were academies consisting of young adventurers and their teachers, some were player-run cities, and some were circles of scribes and wizards. There were also evil player guilds at odds with the good player guilds, consisting of the undead, necromancers, rogues, orcs, self-serving aristocrats, and other ne’er do wells. I’d found a community and support group to be a part of, and suddenly the world was much more complex, as I finally broke out of strict skill development mode with the occasional solo wilderness or dungeon excursion thrown in.
The experienced players in the Militia helped me develop my character into a more capable fighter. At their suggestion, I dropped my rudimentary, unreliable magic skills and picked up archery and healing, both of which developed quickly in group combat. I’d never valued ranged combat before (aside from magic), but I was amazed by how useful archery was and how quickly I grew to love it. Thanks to my UO experience, now when I play any RPG, archery is almost always in my skillset. My mace-fighting skill was valuable in that it could wreck armor quicker than other combat skills. It was great in player versus player combat, but not appreciated by my guildmates during sparring sessions.
Yew was a great guild. We found ourselves at the center of a lot of activity, and I’m still impressed by how much we did! We had scheduled patrols, weekly militia meetings, weekly town council meetings, special events and celebrations, special missions and adventures outside of our jurisdiction, attacks on the city that we had to repel, diplomatic engagements, weddings, get-togethers at player-run taverns that kept regular business hours, and so forth. All in all, I probably only spent about a year and a half as an active member of the community, but it feels like we crammed years of experiences into that period of time.
I can’t go into all of the role-playing adventures and memories I have of Ultima Online—it would take a series of blog entries, or maybe even a book (which is something I’ve given some consideration). But I’ll go ahead and throw out a list of some of the highlights and lowlights:
- After unintentionally getting the City of Yew involved in a feud with the Order of the Ebon Skull, I tried to sacrifice myself to the Order in exchange for them leaving Yew alone. They turned me into a ghoul, then proceeded to continue their beef with Yew. A rescue and restoration effort was mounted, and I was rescued and restored, but the fight between Yew and the Order continued for basically the rest of the time I was an active player. (It wasn’t really my fault. The feud was inevitable. It was one event in a sequence of many that led to war.) It was a huge story with many twists and turns that started pretty innocently, when I approached OES with this deal. I was not expecting what it would eventually develop into.
- Player killers frequently attacked a player-run tavern called The Serpent’s Cross. One time, a mage PK with a pet dragon attacked the tavern. I was on the patio with my bow in hand. One of the mage’s area-of-effect spells inadvertently hit me, and my character auto-retaliated and killed him with one arrow. It was the greatest PvP accomplishment of my life, and it was totally by accident!
- There was another conflict at The Serpent’s Cross (this time within the confines of roleplaying) that saw one enemy character single-handedly take on and defeat no less than four Yew Militia members. I think I was the highest-ranked officer there. I was humiliated, and I don’t think my fellow officers were particularly happy with me or how I handled the situation. I was not as prepared for combat as I thought.
- I got my brother-in-law, Jim, into the UO action as part of the City of Yew. We shared one account—he would play on weekends, and I would play weeknights. He started as a militia officer like me, but later found himself the elected mayor of Yew, which was pretty cool!
- One time, in the middle of a desert, I found myself being pursued by four player killers. In a moment of brilliant panic, I turned around and ran toward them, splitting their ranks and apparently stunning them with my stupidity. I used this opportunity to teleport to safety before they could recover and grind me into the sand.
- An orc army invaded Yew as part of a game-wide event, and they were led by a superhuman in dark armor. He had a ton of hitpoints, and I found myself on the front line fighting this guy, along with seven or eight other people. As a mace-fighter, I was putting a beating on his armor, and he had so much health that I managed to break all of his armor before he died. By the end of the fight, the once-imposing superhuman in the dark armor was reduced to fighting in his underpants.
- A family of snooty nobles moved into Yew, claiming the city was on their ancient homeland and that the city (and our fealty) belonged to them. They talked a big game, but were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid to take over the town. They were also so eager to wage war with Yew that they would recruit anybody to join them, including one of my alternate characters, which I then used to spy on them.
Ultima Online was an amazing experience, but eventually all good things must come to an end. While the adventure still rages on today, I left near the end of 2001. I was a senior in high school, had access to a vehicle, and my interests were definitely shifting from online gaming to things like hanging out, late night trips to Denny’s, and women. The roleplaying community was also not without its share of real life drama. I know that Jim and I both found ourselves, at times, succumbing to gossip and rumor. All it took was one person to tell me that some members of another guild had a problem with how the City of Yew was handling things, and just like that, I was ready to tear the system down from the inside out. I think that, over time, the most active roleplayers on the server became victims of a misconception that they were constantly at the center of the roleplaying narrative and pulling the strings behind the scenes to keep themselves in that position. The less active players felt left out and manipulated (myself included, at times). In hindsight, it was wrong to feel that way, and it made perfect sense that the most active players be the most involved, as they were actually putting in the hours necessary to keep the story rolling. But, I let myself be corrupted by the negativity surrounding the community, and eventually that and the huge time commitment played a major part in Jim and me leaving the game. I think we just got tired. I was also still young, just a teenager, so I myself may have perpetrated all kinds of drama without even being cognizant of it. I hope not. I feel stupid enough for handling things the way I did. At least I learned a lot of good lessons along the way.
My biggest regret is not maintaining the friendships I developed playing the game. I have never been good at this sort of thing. Much in the same way, I don’t maintain very good contact with many old friends and former co-workers. That’s a lesson I’m still learning.
My Ultima Online experience was some good and some bad, but way more good than bad. I don’t know that the community I was a part of in UO will ever be duplicated. I met a lot of good people playing that game, and no amount of skill development or phat loot could bring what they brought to the experience. I hope people play it forever. I still get the itch once a year or so, but I’m afraid to go back. I just can’t make the time commitment necessary to duplicate the experience I had years ago. So I’ll leave it as is: a collection of amazing memories with amazing people.
Congratulations, Ultima Online, on being one of the best games ever.